The Fabric of the Family and How A Stitch in Time Saves Nothing


Recently I’ve been knitting.

Yes, the heresy of it.

A former professional, a feminist, and erstwhile wearer of black denim jeans and black cotton long sleeve shirts has been knitting.

And I have realised just how challenging something like this is to our modern perception of what is worthwhile activity for a woman. It is pretty much on par with confessing that one uses doilies for the plate of biscuits, lavender pomade, warms one’s husband’s slippers before he arrives home from the office, and flounces around in an apron and with feather duster all day.

A few scarves down the line, a couple of booties, a few baby hats and two beautiful hotchpotch blankets for my children which I hope they will treasure in Peanut-like affection, I am something of a convert to the meditative qualities of repeatedly looping yarn around needles. Yet I have found it to be the most provocative and controversial things I have done for some time.

And I have been thinking about why that would be.

Why is it more shocking for a woman in her late 30s to decide that she wants to knit some stuff for her family than, say, get a tattoo? Why is it considered throwback and retrograde for a woman to embrace doing something really quite simple, meditative, creative and generous?

Because it’s pretty uncomfortable, isn’t it? In the age of employment and equality. The image of a woman sitting in a comfy chair, knitting, while her kids play around her. And doing this while others are working at jobs for money, doing ‘important stuff’, doing ‘productive stuff’, contributing to the economy, ‘doing the right thing’ and discharging their responsibilities to society.

Yes. Knitting has turned out to be one of the most rebellious things I have done for a long time. Forget falling down drunk on too many occasions. Conveniently forget that tongue piercing. Knitting is a reminder to myself and others that I am outside the daily grind. You can’t be tense and angry and stressed, rat racing, when you’re knitting – it’s impossible, folks. You are outside of GDP the moment you toil hours to create something, then gift it in love to someone to treasure. For free. You are not counted. You are deemed to be doing something ‘crafty’ or ‘pastime-y’. Not something productive and valuable in its own right.

And it is much like raising children.

Every day since my children were born we have stitched our lives and experience together. Those repetitive movements of love, nursing, cuddles; those occasional dropped stitches of yells and tantrums and parental fails; the days where the pattern is so vibrant and you wish the day could stand still.

So, to answer your question you must have been mulling: what the purl has knitting got to do with children, mothers and mothering?

It’s in the fabric. It takes hundreds of moments, hundreds of deliberate motions, hundreds of not-so-deliberate actions, but presence and dedication, to raise a family at home.

Yet, for all our society cares, we may as well grab a £5 acrylic jumper from Primark and take up that nursery place. The work and love that goes into raising our children full-time, the dedication and skill, and the presence and creativity are completely ignored. They are increasingly diminished. They are almost universally devalued. Mothers can’t be trusted, you see, to raise their own children – we cannot trust them to knit their own children. To choose their own yarn and select their own needles. No. Uniform, Ofsted-rated, professional staffed, primary-coloured plasticised, institutionalised Early Years Childcare is that much admired Primark jumper of child-rearing and that’s exactly what the State wants to see.

The notion that children can but only benefit from childcare is so prevalent, so insidious and so universally promoted – especially amongst politicians keen to promote full maternal employment as ONLY EVER A GOOD THING – that it is often incredibly difficult to engage on this topic without individual parents feeling attacked. That is not my intention. We are all adults – we can all make our own assessments of the merits.

But it would be a fallacy to suggest that every parent is in a position to make a choice. Especially now. I don’t think there is anything I can say about the recent budget which will add anything novel to the wealth of justified criticism already made. It’s truly Titanic in its ambition and effect: Women and Children First.

Many parents do not wish to use childcare and feel guilty for using it out of obligation because finances are increasingly tight and because the system increasingly promotes and encourages dual incomes for a chance of surviving financially. They should not have to be in that position. Those who are scrimping by to have a parent at home are struggling – and things will only get worse without a full re-think of the value of parental care and how our society and economic system can allow for family lives to thrive not just to survive.

To illustrate. A study suggests that a child raised at home has better speech but that the child cared for in a nursery has the better use of a pencil. Commentators then claim a draw! Speech is offset by the better use of a pencil. Without any critical analysis of what that might mean… Well, I would interpret that as the child at home has had one to one, face to face, loving touch and speech and responsiveness and the other has had time and space to master a pencil. Woo hoo. You know what they can do with that pencil.

It does rather suggest a greater premium placed on ‘academic’ rather than the ‘soft stuff’ like love. And that’s right where the issue is, rather.

There are billboards outside every nursery saying ‘THE PLACE TO GROW AND LEARN. Taking children from 2 months until 5; Professional staff; Stimulating environment; OFSTED RATED’. Well – they can shove that Ofsted rating up their stimulating environment.

We simply don’t get the repeated opposite case ‘Being at home is wonderful for children. The place to grow, be loved, to be kissed, to be cuddled, to be known. The place is home!’ plastered on our windows or repeated by politicians and media. The letters I and others in campaign circles received from MPs and candidates during the Election all trotted out the same stuff about how childcare is good for children – without any finer examination of which age, stage, which unique child, what childcare setting, which carer we are talking about.

So in all, it is reaching the stage where mothers have to prove that they are the right people for the job of caring for their own children in a society which sees no point. Just like we have no place knitting a hat for our children when we can pick up a mass produced beany from GAP for £7.


photo credit: <a href=”″>Knitted rainbow</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;


Some Outstanding Letters to the Guardian on Mothering and the 4%


“What women would really like is to have a genuine choice whether to work or stay at home with no stigma attached to either. This means an economy that pays a wage enough to live on without both parents needing to work and consistently sympathetic employers that can offer flexible working hours. Our society needs to start respecting women who stay at home with their children and appreciate that a woman’s contribution to society is not necessarily immediately financially assessable …

I hope my being at home will signal to my children that loving them, enjoying them, and enjoying myself is more important than an extra 4%. I hope it tells them that women, and all people, are more than workers. We work to live, we don’t live to work. I hope it tells them that we must fight for real choice: for a society that values caring, and structures paid work so that both women and men can participate in caring and thus be truly fulfilled, successful humans …

When one parent opts to leave paid work in order to care for and support a growing family, it costs a whole salary. Meanwhile families on two substantial incomes can continue to claim child benefit (long after the single-income family has lost theirs) and they pay far less tax. This is not about somehow indulging cupcake-baking mummies, this is about levelling the playing field so that individual families can make sensible choices about what is good for them over the entire period of having dependent children at home …”


photo credit: <a href=”″>OldLetterBox</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;